Henry Kissinger’s Big Stick: Bombing

Kissinger's foreign policy
Kissinger’s foreign policy

W.J. Astore

Greg Grandin has a new book on Henry Kissinger and a new article at TomDispatch.com.  Kissinger, writes Grandin, had an affinity (or perhaps an avidity) for power, especially air power, as a way of demonstrating his (and America’s) resolve.

Notes Grandin:

Henry Kissinger is, of course, not singularly responsible for the evolution of the U.S. national security state into a monstrosity. That state has had many administrators. But his example — especially his steadfast support for bombing as an instrument of “diplomacy” and his militarization of the Persian Gulf — has coursed through the decades, shedding a spectral light on the road that has brought us to a state of eternal war …

Kissinger was very hands-on. “Strike here in this area,” Sitton recalled Kissinger telling him, “or strike here in that area.” The bombing galvanized the national security adviser. The first raid occurred on March 18, 1969.K really excited,” Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diary. “He came beaming in [to the Oval Office] with the report.”

In fact, he would supervise every aspect of the bombing. As journalist Seymour Hersh later wrote, “When the military men presented a proposed bombing list, Kissinger would redesign the missions, shifting a dozen planes, perhaps, from one area to another, and altering the timing of the bombing runs… [He] seemed to enjoy playing the bombardier.” (That joy wouldn’t be limited to Cambodia. According to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, when the bombing of North Vietnam finally started up again, Kissinger “expressed enthusiasm at the size of the bomb craters.”) A Pentagon report released in 1973 stated that “Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970” — the most secretive phase of the bombing — “as well as the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers.”

All told, between 1969 and 1973, the U.S. dropped half-a-million tons of bombs on Cambodia alone, killing at least 100,000 civilians. And don’t forgetLaos and both North and South Vietnam. “It’s wave after wave of planes. You see, they can’t see the B-52 and they dropped a million pounds of bombs,” Kissinger told Nixon after the April 1972 bombing of North Vietnam’s port city of Haiphong, as he tried to reassure the president that the strategy was working: “I bet you we will have had more planes over there in one day than Johnson had in a month… Each plane can carry about 10 times the load [a] World War II plane could carry.”

As the months passed, however, the bombing did nothing to force Hanoi to the bargaining table.  It did, on the other hand, help Kissinger in his interoffice rivalries. His sole source of power was Nixon, who was a bombing advocate. So Kissinger embraced his role as First Bombardier to show the tough-guy militarists the president had surrounded himself with that he was the “hawk of hawks.” And yet, in the end, even Nixon came to see that the bombing campaigns were a dead end. “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam,” Nixon wrote him over a top-secret report on the efficacy of bombing, “The result = Zilch.” (This was in January 1972, three months before Kissinger assured Nixon that “wave after wave” of bombers would do the trick).

During those four-and a half years when the U.S. military dropped more than 6,000,000 tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, Kissinger revealed himself to be not a supreme political realist, but the planet’s supreme idealist.  He refused to quit when it came to a policy meant to bring about a world he believed heought to live in, one where he could, by the force of the material power of the U.S. military, bend poor peasant countries like Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam to his will — as opposed to the one he did live in, where bomb as he might he couldn’t force Hanoi to submit. As he put it at the time, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point.”

In fact, that bombing campaign did have one striking effect: it destabilized Cambodia, provoking a 1970 coup that, in turn, provoked a 1970 American invasion, which only broadened the social base of the insurgency growing in the countryside, leading to escalating U.S. bombing runs that spread to nearly the whole country, devastating it and creating the conditions for the rise to power of the genocidal Khmer Rouge…

Bombing for Kissinger was a way to show he was tough within an inner circle around Nixon that put a premium on toughness. It was also a way to minimize casualties to Americans while demonstrating a total disregard for casualties among the peoples of Southeast Asia.

Kissinger the bombardier was seduced by the seemingly god-like potential of air power — the ability to strike from on high, to smite evil-doers and those who would thwart Kissinger’s designs.  Best of all, Kissinger never had to bloody his own hands. (Can you imagine Kissinger in a knife fight?  Of course not.  But you can imagine him gleefully gushing over bombing reports and bomb craters as bomber jets knifed through the sky.)

There’s a “Star Trek” episode in which Captain Kirk says, “Above all else, a god needs compassion.”  Kissinger the “air power god” had no compassion.  It was all about power.  The little people who refused to kowtow to him — the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Chileans, and so on — these people were simply abstractions for Kissinger.  Put differently, they were pawns on the geopolitical chessboard, to be sacrificed at will by self-styled grandmasters like Kissinger.

In his book “Secrets,” Daniel Ellsberg captured Kissinger’s blithe disregard for the lives of others in a probing question about Vietnamization.  Was it moral, Ellsberg asked, to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, knowing they were going to incur high casualties while fighting North Vietnam, even as American troops withdrew?  Kissinger had no answer, one senses because the morality of his policies didn’t much matter to him.  The goal was to save America’s “face” in Vietnam; for Kissinger the fates of the peoples of Southeast Asia paled in comparison to the importance of American prestige.

In his deliberately ponderous Germanic accent, Kissinger spoke softly as he wielded the big stick of American bombing. It didn’t work then, nor is it working today for those who still worship at the altar of Kissinger’s Realpolitik.

The Iran Nuclear Deal: What It Really Means

With Cuba and Iran, perhaps Obama is finally working to earn his peace prize?
With Cuba and Iran, perhaps Obama is finally working to earn his peace prize?

W.J. Astore

When I was a teenager, America’s two biggest allies in the Middle East were Israel and Iran.  We considered the Shah of Iran to be a strong ally in the region, and sold him some of our most advanced weaponry, including the F-14 Tomcat fighter with its powerful radar as well as HAWK surface-to-air missiles.  Students from Iran attended American colleges and universities.  Heck, we even helped Iran with its fledgling nuclear power industry.

All that changed, of course, with the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iranian hostage crisis.  America became “The Great Satan,” American flags were burned, and young Americans were told we had been betrayed.  We took to wearing t-shirts that read “Put a hola in the Ayatollah,” featuring a head shot of the Ayatollah Khomeini with a sniper’s cross hair superimposed on it.  (I should know: I owned and wore that very t-shirt.)

That kind of estrangement, bordering on the unhinged, is what is changing for the better because of the nuclear deal with Iran, notes Peter Van Buren at TomDispatch.com.  In Van Buren’s words:

Here’s what actually matters most [about the Iran nuclear deal]: at a crucial moment and without a shot being fired, the United States and Iran have come to a turning point away from an era of outright hostility. The nuclear accord binds the two nations to years of engagement and leaves the door open to a far fuller relationship. 

Iran and the USA have pulled back from the brink of war.  Sorry: No more off-key renditions by John McCain about bombing Iran.  Billions of dollars saved, countless innocent lives spared.  What’s to complain about?

As Van Buren notes, diplomacy, at least for the time being, was allowed to work.  In his words:

It’s a breakthrough because through it the U.S. and Iran acknowledge shared interests for the first time, even as they recognize their ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. That’s how adversaries work together: you don’t have to make deals like the July accord with your friends. Indeed, President Obama’s description of how the deal will be implemented — based on verification, not trust — represents a precise choice of words. The reference is to President Ronald Reagan, who used the phrase “trust but verify” in 1987 when signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Russians.

The agreement was reached the old-school way, by sitting down at a table over many months and negotiating. Diplomats consulted experts. Men and women in suits, not in uniform, did most of the talking. The process, perhaps unfamiliar to a post-9/11 generation raised on the machismo of “you’re either with us or against us,” is called compromise. It’s an essential part of a skill that is increasingly unfamiliar to Americans: diplomacy. The goal is not to defeat an enemy, find quick fixes, solve every bilateral issue, or even gain the release of the four Americans held in Iran. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Such deft statecraft demonstrates the sort of foreign policy dexterity American voters have seldom seen exercised since Barack Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (Cuba being the sole exception).

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished.  Republicans, having no other viable path to power, reflexively attack the deal even before they’ve read it.  Impostors like Mike Huckabee actually suggest the deal is leading Jews to the door of the ovens, an outrageously inflammatory and irresponsible reference to the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews in World War II.  Such rhetoric, wildly exaggerated, conveniently obscures the real fears of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

And what are those fears?  Here’s Van Buren again to explain:

No, what fundamentally worries the Israelis and the Saudis is that Iran will rejoin the community of nations as a diplomatic and trading partner of the United States, Asia, and Europe. Embarking on a diplomatic offensive in the wake of its nuclear deal, Iranian officials assured fellow Muslim countries in the region that they hoped the accord would pave the way for greater cooperation. American policy in the Persian Gulf, once reliably focused only on its own security and energy needs, may (finally) start to line up with an increasingly multifaceted Eurasian reality. A powerful Iran is indeed a threat to the status quo — hence the upset in Tel Aviv and Riyadh — just not a military one. Real power in the twenty-first century, short of total war, rests with money.

He nails it.  After all, what’s the worse that can happen?  Let’s say Iran cheats and starts to develop a nuclear weapon.  In that case, the U.S. will have broad support in attacking Iran to eliminate that capability.  Meanwhile, the thousands of nuclear warheads that the U.S. possesses, and the hundreds of nuclear bombs the Israelis possess, should serve as a sufficient deterrent against Iranian nuclear designs (assuming the Iranians ever seek to fulfill them).

After so many failed military interventions in the Middle East, after so much death and destruction, isn’t it high time the world community tried diplomacy and engagement?  I’d say so.  And this from a former teenager who wore a t-shirt advocating the assassination of Iran’s revolutionary leader.

Obama’s Speech on ISIS: More of the Same, As in Military Action (Updated)

Obama "consults" with Congress before ordering more bombing.  Note the irony of George Washington's portrait, the man who warned us to avoid foreign entanglements
Obama “consults” with Congress before ordering more bombing. Note the irony of George Washington’s portrait, the man who warned us to avoid foreign entanglements (Source: NYT)

W.J. Astore

President Obama’s speech tonight on the Islamic State (or ISIS) promises more military action.  More airstrikes, more boots on the ground (mainly Special Forces), more training for the Iraqi military (who have endured more than a decade’s worth of U.S. military training, with indifferent results), and more weapons sales (which often end up in the hands of ISIS, thereby necessitating more U.S. airstrikes to destroy them).

All of this is sadly predictable.  Call it the TINA militarized strategy, as in “There is no alternative” (TINA) but to call in the military.

There are three reasons for the TINA strategy.  One is domestic politics.  Facing elections in November, the Obama Administration and the Democrats must appear to be strong.  They must take military action, at least in their eyes, else risk being painted by Republicans as terrorist-appeasers.

The second reason is also obvious: The military option is the only one the U.S. is heavily invested in; the only option we’re prepared, mentally as well as physically, to embrace.  The U.S. is militarized; we see the military as offering quick results; indeed, the military promises such results; we’re impatient people; so we embrace the military.

Never mind the talk of another long war, perhaps of three years or longer.  When they bother to pay attention, what most Americans see on their TV and computer screens is quick results, like the video released by Central Command showing the U.S. military blowing up ISIS equipment (often, U.S. military equipment provided to Iraq but appropriated by ISIS).  And unlike those ISIS “medieval” beheadings, decapitation by laser-guided bomb is both unoffensive and justified.

And if we’re blowing things up with our 21st-century decapitation bombs, we must be winning — or, at least we’re doing something to avenge ISIS barbarism.  Better to do something than nothing.  Right?

The third reason is more subtle and it comes down to our embrace of “dominance” as our de facto military strategy.  Allow me to explain.  After World War II, the U.S. military embraced “containment” as the approach to the Soviet Union.  “Parity” was the buzzword, at least in the nuclear realm, and “deterrence” was the goal.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. did not become “a normal country in normal times,” nor did we cash in our peace dividends.  Instead, the U.S. military saw a chance for “global reach, global power,” global dominance in other words.  And that’s precisely the word the U.S. military uses: dominance (expanded sometimes to full spectrum dominance, as in land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and who knows what else).

You can explain a lot of what’s happened since 9/11 with that single word: dominance.  The attacks of 9/11 put the lie to U.S. efforts to dominate global security, which drove the Bush/Cheney Administration to double down on the military option as the one and only way of showing the world who’s boss.  Clear failures of the military option in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere did not encourage soul-searching; rather, it simply drove Obama and his generals to promise that “this time, we’ll do it (bombing and raids and interventions) better and smarter” than the previous administration.

There’s simply no learning curve when your overall goal is to exercise dominance each and every time you’re challenged. Ask John McCain.

So as you listen to the president’s speech tonight, keep those three elements in mind: domestic politics, our enormous investment (cultural as well as financial) in the military and our preference for quick results at any price, and finally our desire to exercise dominance across the globe.  It may help you to parse the president’s words more effectively.  Perhaps it will also explain why our leaders never seem to learn.  It’s not because they’re stupid: it’s because their careers and commitments require them not to learn.

Bombs away.

Update: There’s another aspect of our dominance that is fascinating to consider.  The US sees its dominance as benevolent or benign, never as bellicose or baneful.  This is reflected brilliantly in the US Navy’s current motto, “A global force for good.”  Not to deny that the Navy does good work, but I’m not sure we’d applaud if F-18s were dropping laser-guided bombs on our troops.  The point is that as a society we have a willed blindness to how our “dominance” plays out in the rest of the world.  We only seem to care when that “dominance” comes to Main Street USA, as it did recently in Ferguson, Mo.  (The ongoing militarization of police forces, and their aggressiveness toward ordinary people, are surely signs of “dominance,” but who wants to argue this is benevolent or benign in intent?)

If another country sought global reach/global power through military dominance, that country would be instantly denounced by US leaders as inherently hostile and treated as a major threat to world peace.

Update 2 (9/12/14):  Dan Froomkin at The Intercept has a stimulating round-up of criticism about Obama’s latest plans for war (courtesy of Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com).  A summary:

Yesterday, Dan Froomkin of the Intercept offered a fairly devastating round-up of news reports from the mainstream (finally coming in, after much deferential and semi-hysterical reportage!) suggesting just what a fool’s errand the latest expansion of the U.S. intervention in Iraq/Syria could be. (And today’s NY Times has more of the same.) Here are just some selections from his post. Tom Engelhardt

“President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State counts on pretty much everything going right in a region of the world where pretty much anything the U.S. does always goes wrong. Our newspapers of record today finally remembered it’s their job to point stuff like that out.

“The New York Times, in particular, calls bullshit this morning — albeit without breaking from the classic detached Timesian tonelessness. Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler (with contributions from Matt Apuzzo and James Risen) start by pointing out the essential but often overlooked fact that ‘American intelligence agencies have concluded that [the Islamic State] poses no immediate threat to the United States.’

“And then, with the cover of ‘some officials and terrorism experts,’ they share a devastating analysis of all the coverage that has come before: ‘Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East….’

“In the Washington Post this morning, Rajiv Chandrasekaran focuses on all the implausible things that have to go right beyond ‘U.S. bombs and missiles hitting their intended targets’: ‘In Iraq, dissolved elements of the army will have to regroup and fight with conviction. Political leaders will have to reach compromises on the allocation of power and money in ways that have eluded them for years. Disenfranchised Sunni tribesmen will have to muster the will to join the government’s battle. European and Arab allies will have to hang together, Washington will have to tolerate the resurgence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias it once fought, and U.S. commanders will have to orchestrate an air war without ground-level guidance from American combat forces…’

“The McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau , finally no longer alone in expressing skepticism about Obama’s plans, goes all Buzzfeed with a Hannah Allam story: ‘5 potential pitfalls in Obama’s plan to combat the Islamic State’. Allam notes that Yemen and Somalia are hardly examples of success; that the new Iraqi government is hardly “inclusive”; that training of Iraqi soldiers hasn’t worked in the past; that in Syria it’s unclear which “opposition” Obama intends to support; and that it may be too late to cut off the flow of fighters and funds.”

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/09/11/news-organizations-finally-realize-obamas-war-plan-messed/

Update 3 (9/12/14): US Army Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich has a sound critique of the bankruptcy of Obama’s strategy.  Here’s an excerpt:

Destroying what Obama calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant won’t create an effective and legitimate Iraqi state. It won’t restore the possibility of a democratic Egypt. It won’t dissuade Saudi Arabia from funding jihadists. It won’t pull Libya back from the brink of anarchy. It won’t end the Syrian civil war.  It won’t bring peace and harmony to Somalia and Yemen. It won’t persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms in Afghanistan. It won’t end the perpetual crisis of Pakistan. It certainly won’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All the military power in the world won’t solve those problems. Obama knows that. Yet he is allowing himself to be drawn back into the very war that he once correctly denounced as stupid and unnecessary — mostly because he and his advisers don’t know what else to do. Bombing has become his administration’s default option.

Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.

The American Cult of Bombing

A common sight: American warplanes over a burning Iraq
A common sight: American warplanes over a burning desert

Why You Should Expect More Bombs to be Dropped Everywhere
By William J. Astore

Read the entire article at TomDispatch.com

When you do something again and again, placing great faith in it, investing enormous amounts of money in it, only to see indifferent or even negative results, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a neutral observer questioned your sanity or asked you if you were part of some cult.  Yet few Americans question the sanity or cult-like behavior of American presidents as they continue to seek solutions to complex issues by bombing Iraq (as well as numerous other countries across the globe).

Poor Iraq. From Operation Desert Shield/Storm under George H.W. Bush to enforcing no-fly zones under Bill Clinton to Operation Iraqi Freedom under George W. Bush to the latest “humanitarian” bombing under Barack Obama, the one constant is American bombs bursting in Iraqi desert air.  Yet despite this bombing — or rather in part because of it — Iraq is a devastated and destabilized country, slowly falling apart at seams that have been unraveling under almost a quarter-century of steady, at times relentless, pounding.  “Shock and awe,” anyone?


Well, I confess to being shocked: that U.S. airpower assets, including strategic bombers like B-52s and B-1s, built during the Cold War to deter and, if necessary, attack that second planetary superpower, the Soviet Union, have routinely been used to attack countries that are essentially helpless to defend themselves from bombing.

In 1985, when I entered active duty as an Air Force lieutenant, if you had asked me which country the U.S. would “have” to bomb in four sustained aerial campaigns spanning three decades, among the last countries I would have suggested was Iraq.  Heck, back then we were still helping Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, sharing intelligence that aided his military in pinpointing (and using his chemical weapons against) Iranian troop concentrations.  The Reagan administration had sent future Bush secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld there to shake Saddam’s hand for a photo op.  We even overlooked Iraq’s “accidental” bombing in 1987 of a American naval vessel, the USS Stark, that resulted in the death of 37 American sailors, all in the name of containing Iran (and Shia revolutionary fervor).

What we need in 2014 is a new expression that catches the essence of the cult of U.S. air power, something like: “The bomber will always get funded — and used.”

Let’s tackle the first half of that equation: the bomber will always get funded.  Skeptical?  What else captures the reality (as well as the folly) of dedicating more than $400 billion to the F-35 fighter-bomber program, a wildly over-budget and underperforming weapons system that may, in the end, cost the American taxpayer $1.5 trillion.  Yes, you read that right.   Or the persistence of U.S. plans to build yet another long-range “strike” bomber to augment and replace the B-1 and B-2 fleet?  It’s a “must-have,” according to the Air Force, if the U.S. is to maintain its “full-spectrum dominance” on Planet Earth.  Already pegged at an estimated price of $550 million per plane while still on the drawing boards, it’s just about guaranteed to replace the F-35 in the record books, when it comes to delays, cost overruns, and price.  And if you don’t think it’ll get funded, you don’t know recent history.

Heck, I get it.  I was a teenager once.  In the 1970s, as an Air Force enthusiast and child of the Cold War, I hugged exotic and therefore pricey bomber jets to my chest. (Well, models of them, anyway.)  I considered them to be both uniquely American and an absolute necessity when it came to defending our country against the lumbering (but nevertheless menacing) Soviet “bear.”  As a result, I gasped in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter dared to cancel the B-1 bomber program.  While I was a little young to pen my outrage, more mature critics than I quickly accused him of being soft on defense, of pursuing “unilateral disarmament.”

Back then, I’d built a model of the B-1 bomber.  In my mind’s eye I still see its sexy white body and its rakish swing wings.  No question that it was a man’s bomber.  I recall attaching a firecracker to its body, lighting the wick, and dropping the plane from the third-floor porch.  It exploded in mid-air, symbolic to me of the plane’s tragic fate at the hands of the pusillanimous Carter.

But I need not have feared for the B-1.  In October 1981, as one of his first major acts in office, President Ronald Reagan rescinded Carter’s cancellation and revived the mothballed program.  The Air Force eventually bought 100 of the planes for $28 billion, expensive at the time (and called a “turkey” by some), but a relative bargain in the present budgetary environment when it comes to bombers (but these days, little else).

At that point, I was a young lieutenant serving on active duty in the Air Force.  I had by then come to learn that Carter, the peanut farmer (and former Navy nuclear engineer), was right.  We really didn’t need the B-1 for our defense.  In 1986, for a contest at Peterson Air Force Base where I was stationed, I wrote a paper against the B-1, terming the idea of a “penetrating strategic bomber” a “flawed strategy” in an era of long-range air-launched cruise missiles.  It earned an honorable mention, the equivalent of drawing the “you have won second prize in a beauty contest” card in Monopoly, but without the compensatory $10.

That “penetrating,” by the way, meant being loaded with expensive avionics, nowadays augmented by budget-busting “stealth” features, so that a plane could theoretically penetrate enemy air defenses while eluding detection.  If the idea of producing such a bomber was flawed in the 1980s, how much more is it today, in an age of remotely-piloted drones and missiles guided by GPS and in a world in which no country the U.S. chooses to bomb is likely to have air defenses of any sophistication?  Yet the Air Force insists that it needs at least 100 of the next generation version of them at a cost of $55 billion.  (Based on experience, especially with the F-35, you should automatically double or even triple that price tag, cost overruns and product development delays being a given in the process.  So let’s say it’ll cost closer to $150 billion.  Check back with me, God willing, in 2040 to see whether the Air Force’s figure or mine was closer to reality.)

Idols for Worship, Urges to Satisfy

Obviously, there are staggering amounts of money to be made by feeding America’s fetish for bombers.  But the U.S. cult of air power and its wildly expensive persistence requires further explanation.  On one level, exotic and expensive attack planes like the F-35 or the future “long range strike bomber” (LRS-B in bloodless acronym-speak) are the military equivalent of sacred cows.  They are idols to be worshipped (and funded) without question.  But they are also symptoms of a larger disease — the engorgement of the Department of Defense.  In the post-9/11 world, this has become so pronounced that the military-industrial-congressional complex clearly believes it is entitled to a trough filled with money with virtually no accountability to the American taxpayer.

Add to that sense of entitlement the absurdist faith of administration after administration in the efficacy of bombing as a problem solver — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and you have a truly lethal combo.  Senator John McCain was widely mocked by progressives for his “bomb Iran” song, warbled during the 2008 presidential campaign to the tune of the Beach Boys’s “Barbara Ann.”  In fact, his tuneless rendition captured perfectly Washington’s absolute faith in bombing as a solution to…whatever.

Even if the bombs bursting over Iraq or elsewhere don’t solve anything, even when they make things worse, they still make a president look, well, presidential.  In America, land of warbirds, it is always better politically to pose as a hunting hawk than a helpless dove.

So don’t blame the Air Force for wanting more and deadlier bombers.  Or don’t blame only them.  Just as admirals want more ships, flyboys naturally want more planes, even when strategically obsolete from scratch and blazingly expensive.  No military service has ever willingly given up even a tiny slice of its share of the prospective budgetary pie, especially if that slice cuts into the service’s core image.  In this sense, the Air Force takes its motto from King Lear’s “Reason not the need!” and from Zack Mayo’s “I want to fly jets!” (memorably uttered by that great Shakespearean actor Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman).

The sad truth runs deeper: Americans evidently want them, too.  More bombers.  More bombs.  In the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s Maverick got it all wrong.  It’s not speed Americans feel a need for; they have an urge to bomb.  When you refuse to reason, when you persist in investing ever more resources in ever more planes, use almost automatically follows.

In other words, fund it, build it, and, as promised in the second half of my equation, the bomber will always get used.  Mock him all you want, but John McCain was on to something.  It’s bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb if not (yet) Iran… then Iraq, or Pakistan, or Libya, or Yemen, or (insert intransigent foreign country/peoples here).

And like cults everywhere, it’s best not to question the core belief and practices of its leaders — after all, bombs bursting in air is now as American as the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Still Pursuing the Dream of Bombing

B-1 Bomber (NYT photo)
B-1 Bomber (NYT photo)

W.J. Astore

There you go again, President Obama, echoing a line delivered by that consummate actor, Ronald Reagan.  Yes, we’re bombing Iraq again, in the name of humanitarianism.  This time, we’re only getting the “bad” Iraqis, so it’s OK.  Right?

The only “humanitarian” bombing I’ve ever heard of is in fiction; specifically, in Slaughter-House Five, where Kurt Vonnegut imagined a bombing raid in reverse, with bombs returning to their planes and bodies blown into pieces magically reassembling into living, breathing, human beings.

The U.S. still believes in the dream of airpower: that it’s cheap, surgical, decisive.  But history has taught us otherwise, a fact I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in March of 2013.  But who cares about history — it’s bunk, right?

So we persist in our “bombs away” mentality, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Libya or Yemen or … well, you get the picture.

Here is the article I wrote about airpower and its lessons.  Consider it as you listen to media reports of how precise and decisive and “modulated” and “measured” our most current raids have been.

The lesson, I think, is simple: So many bombs; so little brains.

The Ever-Destructive Dreams of Air Power Enthusiasts

By William J. Astore

Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean, and selective destruction.  Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the U.S. military of command of the high ground, and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.

Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself.  But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant.  Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.

Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems — like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals — it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life.  However, just like Zeus’s obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation.


The Rise of Air Power

It did not take long after the Wright Brothers first put a machine in the air for a few exhilarating moments above the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903, for the militaries of industrialized countries to express interest in buying and testing airplanes.  Previously balloons had been used for reconnaissance, as in the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. Civil War, and so initially fledgling air branches focused on surveillance and intelligence-gathering.  As early as 1911, however, Italian aircraft began dropping small bombs from open-air cockpits on the enemy — we might today call them “insurgents” — in Libya.

World War I encouraged the development of specialized aircraft, most famously the dancing bi- and tri-winged fighter planes of the dashing “knights of the air,” as well as the more ponderous, but for the future far more important, bombers.   By the close of World War I in 1918, each side had developed multi-engine bombers like the German Gotha, which superseded the more vulnerable zeppelins.  Their mission was to fly over the trenches where the opposing armies were stalemated and take the war to the enemy’s homeland, striking fear in his heart and compelling him to surrender.  Fortunately for civilians a century ago, those bombers were too few in number, and their payloads too limited, to inflict widespread destruction, although German air attacks on England in 1917 did spread confusion and, in a few cases, panic.

Pondering the hecatombs of dead from trench warfare, air power enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s not surprisingly argued strongly, and sometimes insubordinately, for the decisive importance of bombing campaigns launched by independent air forces.  A leading enthusiast was Italy’s Giulio Douhet.  In his 1921 work Il dominio dell’aria (Command of the Air), he argued that in future wars strategic bombing attacks by heavily armed “battle-planes” (bombers) would produce rapid and decisive victories.  Driven by a fascist-inspired logic of victory through preemptive attack, Douhet called for all-out air strikes to destroy the enemy’s air force and its bases, followed by hammer blows against industry and civilians using high-explosive, incendiary, and poison-gas bombs.  Such blows, he predicted, would produce psychological uproar and social chaos (“shock and awe,” in modern parlance), fatally weakening the enemy’s will to resist.

As treacherous and immoral as his ideas may sound, Douhet’s intent was to shorten wars and lessen casualties — at least for his side.  Better to subdue the enemy by pressing hard on select pressure points (even if the “pressing” was via high explosives and poison gas, and the “points” included concentrations of innocent civilians), rather than forcing your own army to bog down in bloody, protracted land wars.

That air power was inherently offensive and uniquely efficacious in winning cheap victories was a conclusion that found a receptive audience in Great Britain and the United States.  In England, Hugh Trenchard, founding father of the Royal Air Force (RAF), embraced strategic bombing as the most direct way to degrade the enemy’s will; he boldly asserted that “the moral effect of bombing stands undoubtedly to the material effect in a proportion of twenty to one.”

Even bolder was his American counterpart, William “Billy” Mitchell, famously court-martialed and romanticized as a “martyr” to air power.  (In his honor, cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy still eat in Mitchell Hall.)  At the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, U.S. airmen refined Mitchell’s tenets, developing a “vital centers” theory of bombing — the idea that one could compel an enemy to surrender by identifying and destroying his vulnerable economic nodes.  It therefore came as no accident that the U.S. entered World War II with the world’s best heavy bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and a fervid belief that “precision bombing” would be the most direct path to victory.

World War II and After: Dehousing, Scorching, Boiling, and Baking the Enemy

In World War II, “strategic” air forces that focused on winning the war by heavy bombing reached young adulthood, with all the swagger associated with that stage of maturity.  The moral outrage of Western democracies that accompanied the German bombing of civilian populations in Guernica, Spain, in 1937 or Rotterdam in 1940 was quickly forgotten once the Allies sought to open a “second front” against Hitler through the air.  Four-engine strategic bombers like the B-17 and the British Lancaster flew for thousands of miles carrying bomb loads measured in tons.  From 1942 to 1945 they rained two million tons of ordnance on Axis targets in Europe, but accuracy in bombing remained elusive.

While the U.S. attempted and failed at precision daylight bombing against Germany’s “vital centers,” Britain’s RAF Bomber Command began employing what was bloodlessly termed “area bombing” at night in a “dehousing” campaign led by Arthur “Bomber” Harris.  What became an American/British combined bomber offensive killed 600,000 German civilians, including 120,000 children, reducing cities like Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), Berlin (1944-45), and Dresden (1945) to rubble.

Yet, contrary to the dreams of air power advocates, Germany’s will to resist remained unbroken.  The vaunted second front of aerial battle became yet another bloody attritional brawl, with hundreds of thousands of civilians joining scores of thousands of aircrews in death.

Similarly mauled but unbroken by bombing was Japan, despite an air campaign of relentless intensity that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians.  Planned and directed by Major General Curtis LeMay, new B-29 bombers loaded with incendiaries struck Tokyo, a city made largely of wood, in March 1945, creating a firestorm that in his words “scorched and boiled and baked [the Japanese] to death.”  As many as 100,000 Japanese died in this attack.

Subsequently, 60 more cities were firebombed until the apotheosis of destruction came that August as atomic bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing another 200,000 people.  It quickly became an article of faith among American air power enthusiasts that these bombs had driven Japan to surrender; together with this, the “decisive” air campaign against Germany became reason enough to justify an independent U.S. Air Force, which was created by the National Security Act of 1947.

In the total war against Nazi and Japanese terror, moral concerns, when expressed, came privately.  General Ira Eaker worried that future generations might condemn the Allied bombing campaign against Germany for its targeting of “the man in the street.”  Even LeMay, not known for introspective doubts, worried in 1945 that he and his team would likely be tried as war criminals if the U.S. failed to defeat Japan.  (So Robert McNamara, then an Army Air Force officer working for LeMay, recalled in the documentary The Fog of War.)

But moral qualms were put aside in the post-war glow of victory and as the fear rose of future battles with communism.  The Korean War (1950-1953) may have ushered in the jet age, as symbolized by the dogfights of American Sabre Jets and Soviet MiGs over the Yalu River, but it also witnessed the devastation by bombing of North Korea, even as the enemy took cover underground and refused to do what air power strategists had always assumed they would: give up.

Still, for the U.S. Air Force, the real action of that era lay largely in the realm of dystopian fantasies as it created the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which coordinated two legs of the nuclear triad, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos and nuclear-armed long-range bombers. (The third was nuclear-missile-armed submarines.)  SAC kept some of those bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons in the air 24/7 as a “deterrent” to a Soviet nuclear first strike (and as a constant first strike threat of our own).  “Thinking about the unthinkable” — that is, nuclear Armageddon — became all the rage, with “massive retaliation” serving as the byword for air power enthusiasts.  In this way, dreams of clean victories morphed into nightmares of global thermonuclear annihilation, leaving the 1930s air power ideal of “clean” and “surgical” strikes in the dust — for the time being.

Reaping What We Sow

Despite an unimaginably powerful nuclear deterrent that essentially couldn’t be used, the U.S. Air Force had to relearn the hard way that there remained limits to the efficacy of air power, especially when applied to low-intensity, counterinsurgency wars.  As in Korea in the 1950s, air power in the 1960s and 1970s failed to provide the winning edge in the Vietnam War, even as it spread wanton destruction throughout the Vietnamese countryside.  But it was the arrival of “smart” bombs near that war’s end that marked the revival of the fantasies of air power enthusiasts about “precision bombing” as the path to future victory.

By the 1990s, laser- and GPS-guided bombs (known collectively as PGMs, for precision guided munitions) were relegating unguided, “dumb” bombs largely to the past.  Yet like their predecessors, PGMs proved no panacea.  In the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, for example, 50 precision “decapitation strikes” targeting dictator Saddam Hussein’s top leadership failed to hit any of their intended targets, while causing “dozens” of civilian deaths.  That same year, air power’s inability to produce decisive results on the ground after Iraq’s descent into chaos, insurrection, and civil war served as a reminder that the vaunted success of the U.S. air campaign in the First Gulf War (1991) was a fluke, not a flowering of air power’s maturity.  (Saddam Hussein made his traditionally organized military, defenseless against air power, occupy static positions after his invasion of Kuwait.)

The recent marriage of PGMs to drones, hailed as the newest “perfect weapon” in the air arsenal, has once again led to the usual fantasies about the arrival — finally, almost 100 years late — of clean, precise, and decisive war.  Using drones, a military need not risk even a pilot’s life in its attacks.  Yet the nature of war — its horrors, its unpredictability, its tendency to outlive its original causes — remains fundamentally unaltered by “precision” drone strikes.  War’s inherent fog and friction persist.  In the case of drones, that fog is often generated by faulty intelligence, the friction by malfunctioning weaponry or innocent civilians appearing just as the Hellfire missiles are unleashed.  Rather than clean wars of decision, drone strikes decide nothing.  Instead, they produce their share of “collateral damage” that only spawns new enemies seeking revenge.

The fantasy of air war as a realm of technical decision, as an exercise in decisively finding, fixing, and dispatching the enemy, appeals to a country like the United States that idolizes technology as a way to quick fixes.  As a result, it’s hardly surprising that two administrations in Washington have ever more zealously pursued drone wars and aerial global assassination campaigns, already killing 4,700 “terrorists” and bystanders. And this has been just part of our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president’s campaign of 20,000 air strikes (only 10% of which were drone strikes) in his first term of office.  Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these attacks, our global war against al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other groups like the Taliban appears no closer to ending.

And that is, in part, because the dream of air power remains just that: a fantasy, a capricious and destructive will-o’-the-wisp.  It’s a fantasy because it denies agency to enemies (and others) who invariably find ways to react, adapt, and strike back.  It’s a fantasy because, however much such attacks seem both alluringly low-risk and high-reward to the U.S. military, they become a rallying cause for those on the other end of the bombs and missiles.

A much-quoted line from the movie Apocalypse Now captured the insanity of the American air war in Vietnam.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” says an Air Cav commander played by Robert Duvall.  “Smelled like… victory.”  Updated for drone warfare, this line might read: “I love the sound of drones in the morning.  Sounds like… victory.”  But will we say the same when armed drones are hovering, not only above our enemies’ heads but above ours, too, in fortress America, enforcing security and conformity while smiting citizens judged to be rebellious?

Something tells me this is not the dream that airpower enthusiasts had in mind.

William J. Astore

The Best Air Raid Ever

vonnegut

W.J. Astore

I finally had a chance to read Kurt Vonnegut’s classic book, Slaughter-House Five, based upon his experiences in World War II as a POW who survived the firebombing of Dresden in 1945.

I grew up on war stories featuring air raids by the German Luftwaffe as well as the Allied combined bombing offensive of World War II. Favorite paperbacks that I read include Cajus Bekker’s The Luftwaffe War Diaries, Adolf Galland’s The First and the Last, and Big Week by Bill Yenne (about the week in February 1944 when the Allies turned the tide of the air campaign against the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany).  All of these books had one thing in common: they were written from the perspective of the air crews, not from the perspective of those on the receiving end of bombs and bullets and fire.  As such, they read like adventure stories, at least to my excitable teenage mind.

Kurt Vonnegut gave us a different perspective in Slaughter-House Five: at the ground level, during and after the firestorm that destroyed Dresden in February 1945, one year after the Allies had allegedly turned the tide and “won” the air battle during Big Week.  The moon scape that Vonnegut encountered after leaving his shelter was evidence of the perfect firestorm the Allies had created in their bombing raids over Dresden, which combined area bombing at night by Britain’s Royal Air Force (using a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs) with daylight “precision” bombing by U.S. bomber forces.

But I don’t want to speak about the horrors of that raid.  No need to repeat Vonnegut’s account.  What struck me in reading his book was an imaginary air raid, an air raid that runs backwards.  In Vonnegut’s words:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

There you have it: the best air raid ever, brought to you via the imagination of a great writer who survived one of the worst air raids ever.

I’m not sure Vonnegut’s words would have resonated with my teenage mind, caught as it was in dramatic and deadly duels in the skies over Europe.  As Vonnegut knew, there’s an endless supply of dumb teenagers fantasizing about war.  So it goes.

 

Lessons of the Vietnam War

The My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Massacre

W.J. Astore

Nick Turse has a fine op-ed in the New York Times, “For America, Life Was Cheap in Vietnam.”  In it he argues that for Americans involved in the Vietnam War, life was very cheap indeed – Vietnamese lives, that is.  Turse has written a powerful book, “Kill Anything that Moves,” that documents the total war the United States waged on the Vietnamese people and countryside.  As Turse notes in his op-ed, American leaders like General William Westmoreland demonstrated “a profligate disregard for human life,” mainly because their strategy “was to kill as many ‘enemies’ as possible, with success measured by body count.  Often, those bodies were not enemy soldiers,” Turse concludes.

As the U.S. embraced a bloody war of attrition, Turse observes that “the United States declared wide swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside to be free-fire zones where even innocent civilians could be treated as enemy forces. Artillery shelling, intended to keep the enemy in a state of constant unease, and near unrestrained bombing slaughtered noncombatants and drove hundreds of thousands of civilians into slums and refugee camps.”

I recently came across two accounts that lend further support to Turse’s conclusion.  The first is an article written by Bernard Fall, “This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain,” published in Ramparts in December 1965.  (My thanks to Dan White for bringing this article to my attention.)  Bernard Fall was an expert on Vietnam; among other classic books, he wrote “Hell In A Very Small Place” (about the siege of Dien Bien Phu) and “Street Without Joy.”  He was killed by a mine in Vietnam in 1967.

Writing in 1965, in the early stages of large-scale American deployment of troops, Fall noted that the war had already become “depersonalized and, to a large extent, dehumanized.”  “It is a brutal war,” Fall continued, “and already, in what may loosely be termed the ‘American period’ [of Indochinese conflict], the dead are near a quarter million, with perhaps another half million people seriously maimed.”

“A truly staggering amount of civilians are getting killed or maimed in this war,” Fall concluded, illustrating his point by recounting an air raid he had accompanied that destroyed a Vietnamese fishing village.

By later standards (massive bombing by B-52s in Arc Light attacks), the air raid Fall witnessed, consisting of A-1 Skyraiders carrying napalm and fragmentation bombs, was small.  But don’t tell that to the Vietnamese fishing village that was utterly destroyed in this “small” raid.  As Fall recounts, the village may or may not have been harboring a Viet Cong unit.  If it had been harboring a VC unit, it may have done so unwillingly, and that VC unit may have already moved along by the time the Skyraiders appeared overhead.  No matter.  The village and villagers were burnt, blown apart, and strafed.  A U.S. official report recorded that a VC rest center “had been successfully destroyed.”

Such indiscriminate attacks convinced Fall that the U.S. was not “able to see the Vietnamese as people against whom crimes can be committed.  This is the ultimate impersonalization of war.”

But even more worryingly for Fall was that “The incredible thing about Vietnam is that the worst is yet to come,” a tragically prescient statement.

And the worst might be represented by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Julian Ewell.  As the commanding general of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam, Ewell became known as the “Butcher of the Delta.”  Douglas Kinnard, an American general serving in Vietnam under Ewell, recounted his impressions of him (in “Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor”):

Ewell, recalled Kinnard, “constantly pressed his units to increase their ‘body count’ of enemy soldiers.  This had become a way of measuring the success of a unit since Vietnam was a war of attrition, not a linear war with an advancing front line.  In the 9th [infantry division] he had required all his commanders to carry 3” x 5” cards with body count tallies for their units by date, by week, and by month.  Woe unto any commander who did not have a consistently high count.”

In a war in which commanding generals rewarded American troops for generating high enemy body count and punished those “slackers” who didn’t kill enough of the enemy, small wonder that Vietnam became an American killing field and a breeding ground for atrocity.

Bernard Fall ended his powerful article on an ambiguous note.  After having talked to a lot of Americans in Vietnam, he noted he hadn’t “found anyone who seems to have a clear idea of the end – of the ‘war aims’ – and if the end is not clearly defined, are we justified to use any means to attain it?”

In Vietnam, the U.S. used immoderate means, often with wanton disregard for the lives or livelihood of the Vietnamese people, in pursuit of ill-defined ends.  Echoing Fall’s words, we pursued open-ended devastation for no clear purpose with little regard to moral responsibility.

We lost more than a war in Vietnam.  We lost our humanity.